We spent the entire summer hypothesizing and speculating on what the new WCHA would look like when the puck dropped in October, until we felt like we had a pretty good handle on things. But no battle plan survives first contact. Now that we have our first real data points to judge the league on, what exactly did we learn about the WCHA in the first weekend of the season?
1. Reality Sets In
Overall, it was a pretty ugly weekend for the new WCHA. The league went 5-10-3 on the weekend in their first weekend of non-conference play, and those wins came against Quinnipiac, Air Force(2x), and Robert Morris(2x). Add in Ferris State's road split at Colgate last weekend, and the league is a pretty ugly 6-11-3 in non-conference play, and heading towards a single automatic bid in the NCAA tournament.
The home/road split was pretty stark. Lake Superior and Alaska-Anchorage were the only teams at home last weekend, and went a perfect 4-0-0, while Alaska was playing on a neutral site in their home state and split their two games.
It's only the first weekend, and there's still plenty of hockey to be played, but the first glimpse of the future for the WCHA certainly was not a pretty one.
2. It's Not Going to be So Easy for Minnesota State
Most every preseason projection had the Mavericks among the top teams in the country and running away with the new WCHA. But a pair of drubbings at the hands of Providence last weekend shows that Minnesota State still has a ways to go before they're penciled into the NCAA tournament.
Offense was expected to be the big catalyst for Minnesota State's team with so much scoring returning to the lineup, but the Mavericks scored just one goal on the weekend despite firing 64 shots on goal, and went an extremely troubling 0-for-16 on the power play. They were on the road against a pretty good Providence team, with an exceptional goalie in Jon Gillies, but if there's one thing they should see a lot of in the new WCHA, it's quality goal tending, so they'll need to get their scoring issues worked out.
It's also worth noting that with the late-summer departures of Zach Lehrke and JP Burkemper, combined with Corey Leivermann and Charlie Thauwald transferring to D-3 schools in the past year, Minnesota State is now perilously thin at forward. They started the season with just 13 forwards on the roster, and forward Dylan Margonari missed Saturday's game due to injury. There may be times Minnesota State struggles to get a full lineup of forwards on the ice some nights.
3. Alaska-Anchorage is Better?
Alaska-Anchorage opened their season with wins against Quinnipiac and Air Force, giving many hope that this could be the year the Seawolves finally turn the corner.
I'm not ready to go that far yet. The Seawolves traditionally do pretty well at the season-opening Kendall Hockey Classic. Their last loss in the tournament came to Michigan in 2009, with a win against St. Cloud and a tie with North Dakota mixed in over that stretch. Even the historically bad John Hill-led 1-win season opened with a series split against Alaska in the first weekend of the season. The bigger issue for Alaska-Anchorage over the years has been their tough travel schedule, combined with the meat grinder of the WCHA schedule wearing them down in the second half of the season.
But starting the season off with two wins is a huge positive for the Seawolves. If this team starts believing that they can win games and be competitive, they might be able to carry that over into league play, and success could start breeding more success.
4. Close But No Cigar
A big part of the reason for the WCHA's poor record last weekend came because WCHA teams lost a lot of points late in games over the weekend. On Friday, Pheonix Copley played an outstanding game, but gave up a goal with just under three minutes left in regulation to give Minnesota-Duluth the 2-1 win. On Saturday, Northern Michigan found themselves in the same position, giving up the game-winning goal with 3:35 left in regulation in a 2-1 loss to Wisconsin. Bemidji State carried a 2-0 lead into the third period against St. Cloud on Saturday, but could only come away with a tie.
It's a problem the new WCHA is going to have to deal with consistently. Their teams are certainly good enough to compete with any team in college hockey, but when it comes down to crunch time, those other teams have an extra gear that the WCHA teams just can't match.